In 10 days former Hillsdale College star linebacker Tom Korte will face 11 straight two-a-day practices with a spot on an NFL roster up for grabs.
But for now, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ undrafted rookie signee is just keeping his cool, reminding himself of how he got this far in the first place, and using his newfound status as a professional athlete to his advantage — as a Detroit Tigers fan of all things.
Although he has a two-year rookie contract, nothing is guaranteed in the NFL, and even with his name on the official Steelers Web site, Korte has plenty to prove and a whole lifetime of believing in himself is coming to a head. Two weeks of nothing but football against some of the world’s best athletes are his challenge and he’s as amped up and confident as ever about his chances to make the team.
“I’ve always thought I was a Division I athlete even though I was a Division II athlete. I overcame that and now I’m an undrafted free agent and I feel like I have the skills to be part of a good NFL team. So it’s on me to come in and to develop myself and my skills in order to prove to just myself that I’m able to play this game at this level,” he said. “I’ve always felt like I had a skill set to be one of the best and play with the best and now here’s the point in my life where I’m actually in the position to reaffirm all of those thoughts I’ve had about myself.”
While camping and hanging out with his family in Grand Rapids the past few weeks Korte has been mixing in plenty of a dates with the Steelers’ defensive playbook and physically he said he feels “100 percent, as good as ever.”
“I think the coaches would say I’m a hard worker and that I can move extremely well in the box. And that I’m going to bring my lunch pail to practice everyday and I’m going to get after it and I’m not going to back down to anybody.”
He also has a good idea of some things he needs to work on.
“I think the thing they want me to improve on definitely is just learning the defense and just overall camaraderie with the team. They want to see each player and how they work with other guys and I’ve always been one who got along with a lot of my players. They just want to see how I click with the guys and I think that’s an important part of meshing on the field and being able to communicate.”
Korte said he is trying to remain calm and not over-think the situation too much. He said he does a lot of visualizing and mental training, something he learned from sports psychologist David Carr who worked with the Hillsdale College football team last season.
He also said that grasping the playbook is an adventure in itself, albeit it one he will be graded very strictly on.
“I wouldn’t say (the playbook) is as much big as it is detailed, it is extremely detailed. It is large don’t get me wrong, but it’s full of twists for every play and it’s been interesting to learn and I really enjoy getting my nose in the book,” he said. “Hopefully when I get out there and am gassed I can make six or seven calls I need to every play.”
To keep his mind off the pressures of trying to get past the next cut Korte keeps finding ways to have a good time, whether it be modeling a Snuggie for his Facebook profile picture or hitting a baseball game with some of his newest teammates.
Korte responded to the idea that it might be considered a bit odd for a tough NFL hopeful to be posing in a sleeved blanket by saying that keeping loose and having fun is all part of the plan.
“You’ve got to have a good time, you can’t be serious all the time. If you’re cranked up all the time you’re just going to, I guess, run out of fuel,” he said. “I like to have a good time, it was kind of an inside joke with my girlfriend and her friend and we actually got that for her best friend’s wedding — we gave her an embroidered Snuggie.”
If that’s not a story he’s likely to tell his kids one day, here’s one that might be told.
Korte attended a Tigers, Pirates baseball game in Pittsburgh in mid-June with a couple of teammates. He quickly found out the benefits of being part of the professional athlete fraternity.
“I went with a couple of guys to the game and then we went to a bar across the street to hang out since it was the weekend. And half an hour later (Justin) Verlander and (Gerald) Laird and some guys were there. I had a Tigers T-shirt on and I went over to them and introduced myself and told them I was a big Tigers’ fan and I played for the Steelers and they were a little bit more welcoming knowing that I was also a professional athlete,” he said. “So I got to talk to them for a little bit and they were really, extremely nice guys. So I definitely used the whole Steelers thing to help myself out a little bit. Professional athletes know how much you have to work to be where you’re at and they can appreciate that, and they were some great guys.”
Korte admitted that it is a little crazy realizing the celebrity status of some of his teammates, a few of which were at the ESPY awards on ESPN Sunday night, but he has plenty of personal aspirations that keep him from getting star-struck.
He said a lot of the players still come up and ask where he’s from and when he tells them Hillsdale College they just say, ‘Where’s that?’
Korte knows he’s not the first D-II star to make the jump from a small college to the big-time though, and Steelers’ teammate Carlton Brewster is a wide receiver out of Ferris State who has jumped around quite a bit in his pro career.
“I talked to him and he gave me some good advice, just to give it all you can and realize it’s a different style of football going from D-II to the NFL,” Korte said. “You just have to learn and give it your best and there will be some things that go your way and you just have to go with punches and have a little luck.”
Starting in a week-and-a-half St. Vincent College will be Korte’s home for Steelers training camp and he could care less who is from what school and what that even means.
“I don’t really worry about guys’ pasts, because we’re all on the same level now and it’s about how you produce from here on out. I’m just going to go out there, give 100 percent and do my best,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done my whole life and I just hope it works this time as well. I always believed I could do something special and I’m on the brink of doing that.”